Taking Conference Learning to Task

One week ago I was packing up to leave a marvelous educators’ conference. The Central and Eastern European Schools Association (CEESA) conference celebrated its 25th anniversary at a stunning resort location near Dubrovnik, Croatia. Spectacular views to the Adriatic Sea, attendance by just over 400 educators and school folk from the region and beyond, and a strong selection of workshop sessions around the theme of “transforming education through global citizenship” offered all the right ingredients for an outstanding professional experience.

In a nutshell, I could not have been happier with the conference and my attendance. Not a moment of my time or dose of energy felt wasted or superfluous. It was a conference put together with great care and attention to coherence and also ambient experience. Opportunities and invitations to visit Dubrovnik and drink in its unique history and atmosphere were actively incorporated into the program. The keynote speakers were extremely well-chosen to address the conference theme of global citizenship: Michael Furdyk spoke about the student service platform Taking It Global and Heidi Hayes-Jacobs described steps to create 21st century learning environments. Additional invited speakers led well-attended workshops of practical pedagogical importance.

Now, one week later, I am asking myself however, to what end? Yes, I had a rich and invigorating conference experience and enjoyed fun and also reflective times with some of my colleagues but what of it? How does that serve anyone besides me? Who benefits from my freshly gained (and perhaps as quickly dissipating) insights from this great learning experience? I imagine that I am not alone in this experience. It could be that many other conference participants left this spectacular event only to see those precious new ideas for innovation or tweaking quickly fade when they got back to school. They may have found that their colleagues who, during said absence were literally and figuratively “holding down the fort,” did not or could not share the same enthusiasm for new ideas or spare the time to appreciate them. For many of us this situation may be par for the course. Not every school has an active forum for conference participants to share their learning with colleagues upon return. Which is, of course, a shame.

Overcoming this situation would not necessarily require much effort. 5 minutes of a faculty meeting, perhaps. Or a world café style meeting where conference attendants share and moderate conversations around the most compelling take-aways from their conference experience and colleagues can choose 2-3 areas of interest in which to engage. The key lies in honoring time and effort spent on professional learning and providing space for those gains to be shared, spread and built upon. If you imagine sending teachers to a conference as an act of sowing seeds, then surely we must all take an interest in the ensuing growth and harvest that will follow.

One of the thoughts that kept coming back to me at the conference was: given the theme of global citizenship, how adept do I feel in my own capacity to model, (not even explicitly teach yet) some of these principles for my students? All the topics of what and how to change the educational experiences of our students come back to me as a teacher and the role I plan to take in making it happen. Reflecting on this question “in my own private Idaho” appears to be of little use. This is a question whose response insists on company and dialogue and challenge in order to make sense. Without the benefit of outside and other perspectives, I will continue to see things not as they are, but as I am.

This strikes me as the fundamental glitch in our ability to transfer great conference learning and experiences to community benefit and growth. How might we move from “one and done” professional learning events to something like “one and share and extend….”? How might we bring those insights back to our students to let them know that we were learning on their behalf? When will it become commonplace for us to highlight and value learning that takes place outside of our schools, districts, and subject areas?

These are big questions and critical to sustaining the purposeful use of conferences as a wise professional learning option. My time in Dubrovnik could be written off as a delightful vacation opportunity with a little education(al) banter thrown in. But the fact that it was so much more than that would hardly be known unless I broadcast it here. That speaks volumes about how far we have to go.


A Gratitude Post

I’m calling these “gratitude episodes.”

I met Amy on a plane ride. Within the space of about an hour we had a conversation that led us around the world and back, together. I have no idea if I will ever see Amy again but the gift of her insights and experiences that she shared with me about teaching, learning, pet care, and leading an authentic life was huge.

An elderly man made his way through a buzzing crowd of educators. I was able to read the name tag on his lanyard and strode over to him with intent. I offered my hand and he shook it firmly, leaning forward in order to hear me say my name clearly. This was the man who, as the founder of a recruiting agency I was aiming to leave, called me personally on Skype in order to intervene. He was 78 at the time and planning on retiring but he still felt it necessary to talk with me and explain that not all of his recruiters were equally creative in their thinking. I will never forget that phone call and so it was an honor to finally meet this gentleman in person to say “Thank you.” As we chatted further we found time to speak glowingly of mutual friend and to sing the praises of Vienna. The encounter proved to be an absolute highlight of my conference weekend.

A dear friend and I took a time our during the conference and enjoyed a one-on-one conversation which felt like a deliciously satisfying four-course meal by the time we were done. We sat in the sun, gazing out on the Adriatic Sea and talked about yoga, solitude, the wonders of life and gratitude. This conversation filled my cup and boosted my energy.

I shared a vacation apartment with two colleagues who are both teachers of music. We have known each other  and worked in the same school together for a long time. Yet spending time with them in this context felt like a revelation. I was (re)acquainted with their generosity, humor, and sense of order. We shared stories about our lives which for me felt so fully enriching and edifying. At long last, I was getting to know my colleagues more deeply, and they, me.

At the close of the workshop that I facilitated, one participant said: “You practice what you preach.” This was in reference to the way in which I conducted the workshop on inclusion activities – paced according to the participants’ needs, invitational in atmosphere, going for experience rather than just description. While this is what I aim for every time, to hear someone say it to me directly in response to a learning experience we’ve just shared – well, that is a rare instance indeed. It reminds me of how incalculable our efforts of teaching, sharing, facilitating, coaching, and guiding ultimately are. We almost never know for sure how and to what degree we have impacted others in the short and long term. For this reason, I hold this one piece of feedback as precious.

While I was enjoying the beautiful setting of this conference, I walked a fair amount, sometimes with others and also alone. I’ve been reading Atul Gawande’s extraordinary new book, Being Mortal which examines how we handle dying and aging in our modern Western societies in particular. And as I walked I thought about these topics and so often I was infused with moments of breathless gratitude for my good health, for the privileges I was enjoying in that moment, for the warm sun on my face, the respect and friendship of my colleagues, for the freedom to be and do as I see fit, for the wonders of nature: sea, stars, blossoms and stones, for time on my own, for the connection to my family which makes all of this possible. The list continues. Yet in reading about being mortal, about grappling with the prospect of imminent death, I gained a renewed sense of purpose and also relief. “All I have to do is to make this the best it can be right now. That’s it. Not more.”

This is my gratitude post today. Tomorrow’s or next week’s or next year’s will be different, I suspect. That the gratitude continues to flow and find a generous home in my day-to-day habits, this is my wish and also my intent.